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British Columbia is starting a measles immunization catch-up drive next month in a bid to vaccinate 95 per cent of the province’s youth amid an outbreak of 19 confirmed measles cases.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said Wednesday the voluntary April to June catch-up campaign comes ahead of next fall’s mandatory immunization registration of students at B.C.’s public and private schools.

The details of the mandatory registration will be announced in May, but will not include mandatory immunizations of students, he said at a news conference.

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“It’s our expectation as part of this campaign that every child who’s not immunized in B.C., or under-immunized, will have the opportunity to be immunized,” said Dix. “I would prefer a system where we ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be immunized.”

He said the mandatory registration due in September will give schools and health officials current information on the immunization status of students.

Dix said provincial data from 2018 indicates 82 per cent of seven-year-olds in the province have been immunized against measles, a number he said needs improvement.

There are likely numerous reasons why the immunization numbers have declined in B.C., including busy families, but the main focus should be increasing the vaccination numbers, he said.

The government will spend $3-million to purchase a one-year supply of the measles vaccine for the catch-up campaign.

Measles has serious, long-lasting potential complications, including pneumonia, deafness, seizures, inflammation of the brain, brain damage and death, Dix said.

In 2010, an outbreak of 87 measles cases was recorded in the province during the Winter Olympics. Another 343 cases were reported during a 2014 outbreak in the British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, he said.

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Measles is highly infectious and spreads through the air. Close contact is not needed for transmission.

The majority of the current and previous cases originated from outside of B.C., but affected non-vaccinated young people, Dix said.

“We need to take action now to raise the level of immunization,” he said. “It’s important we strive to achieve what’s sometimes called herd immunity.”

The catch-up program will be offered in schools, public health units and community health centres and also include pharmacies, Dix said.

The goal is to reach students who have never been vaccinated, but the program will also offer second-dose shots for students who have not completed the required schedule of two vaccinations.

Dix said letters will be sent to parents and guardians of children whose vaccination status is not up-to-date.

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Education Minister Rob Fleming said safeguarding the health of students, teachers, staff and their family members is a high priority. The school system plays a prominent role in raising awareness about the importance of childhood vaccines and increasing rates of immunization, he said.

“The point we want to make to parents and the school community today is that immunization is an effective and very easy step to take,” said Fleming. “We should remember by taking this very small step we’re protecting those who cannot be immunized because there is a small percentage of kids who have allergies and other reasons why immunization is not effective.”

Dr. Brian Emerson, B.C.’s deputy health officer, said immunization is the best method of protecting children, families and friends from infectious diseases.

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